[Paleopsych] NYT: Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits
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Mon Apr 18 19:37:41 UTC 2005
Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, March 3 - For many China watchers, the holding of a
National People's Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion
for gleaning the inner workings of this country's closed political
system. For specialists in China's Internet controls, though, the
gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to
measure the state of the art of Web censorship.
The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers
of the country's main Internet providers, major portals and Internet
cafe chains and warning them against allowing "subversive content" to
"Some messages on the Internet are sent by those with ulterior
motives," Qin Rui, the deputy director of the Public Information and
Internet Security Supervision Bureau, was quoted as saying in The
Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at
assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the
government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who
enforce limits on what can be seen and said.
"If you say something the Web administrator doesn't like, they'll
simply block your account," said Bill Xia, a United States-based
expert in Chinese Internet censorship, "and if you keep at it, you'll
gradually face more and more difficulties and may land in real
According to Amnesty International, arrests for the dissemination of
information or beliefs via the Internet have been increasing rapidly
in China, snaring students, political dissidents and practitioners of
the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, but also many writers,
lawyers, teachers and ordinary workers.
Already the most sophisticated in the world, China's Internet controls
are stout even in the absence of crucial political events. In the last
year or so, experts say the country has gone from so-called dumb
Internet controls, which involve techniques like the outright blocking
of foreign sites containing delicate or critical information and the
monitoring of specific e-mail addresses to far more sophisticated
Newer technologies allow the authorities to search e-mail messages in
real time, trawling through the body of a message for sensitive
material and instantaneously blocking delivery or pinpointing the
offender. Other technologies sometimes redirect Internet searches from
companies like Google to copycat sites operated by the government,
serving up sanitized search results.
China's latest show of growing prowess in this area came in January
after a major political event, the death of the former leader Zhao
Zhiyang, who had been held under house arrest since appearing to side
with students in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations.
When the official New China News Agency put out a laconic bulletin
about his death, placing it relatively low in its hierarchy of daily
news stories, most of the rest of China's press quickly and safely
followed suit. On their Web sites, one newspaper after another ran the
news agency's sterile bulletin rather than take risks with commentary
of their own.
What happened on campuses was far more interesting, though. University
bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao's death
was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his
death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression
of lack of interest.
"Zhao's death was the first big test since the SARS epidemic," said
Xiao Qiang, an expert on China's Internet controls at the University
of California at Berkeley.
But if the government is investing heavily in new Internet control
technologies, many experts said the sophistication of Chinese users
was also increasing rapidly, as are their overall numbers, leading to
a cat-and-mouse game in which, many say, it is becoming increasingly
difficult for the censors to prevail.
At 94 million users, China has the world's second-largest population
of Internet users, after the United States, and usage here, most of it
broadband, is growing at double-digit rates every year.
"What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the
dike," said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who
formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid
government censorship. "Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the
lid on, and they've been pretty successful at controlling what
appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around
As with the policing efforts, the evasion techniques range from the
sly and simple - aliases and deliberate misspellings to trick key-word
monitors and thinly veiled sarcastic praise of abhorrent acts by the
government on Web forums that seem to confound the censors - to
so-called proxy servers, encryption and burying of sensitive comments
in image files, which for now elude real-time searches.
For those reasons and others, some Chinese experts have publicly
advocated that the government gradually get out of the business of
"All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with
a lack of information," said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Lower levels of
government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the
SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too."
The most eagerly watched key word in China today is probably Falun
Gong. "I don't know the number, but I would guess every Chinese has
received a Falun Gong e-mail," Mr. Guo said. "There is no way to stop
it. You can shut down the Web site, but you cannot kill the users.
They just go somewhere else online, sometimes keeping the same
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